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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

AP tests are tough: Is the bar too high for disadvantaged students?

"The basic philosophy of the Advanced Placement Program is simply that all students are not created equal," said the program's director, David A. Dudley, in 1958. That's changed.

In the name of "equity," College Board, which runs AP, has expanded the number of high school students taking AP courses and exams "in part by pitching the program to low-income students and the schools that serve them," reports Dana Goldstein in the New York Times. The number of AP exams taken by low-income students surged from 153,000 20 years ago to 1.1 million.

Roxbury Prep students take multiple AP classes.

Students need a 3, 4 or 5 on the exam to earn college credit. Course grades don't count. Sixty percent of low-income students earned a 1 or 2, compared to 38 percent of AP test takers nationwide.

"Timed, standardized tests almost always produce results that mirror broader class and race inequities," Goldstein writes.

So, is AP helping students -- or just generating exam fees for College Board?

Test-optional policies in higher education are hurting College Board's SAT revenue, making the nonprofit more dependent on AP fees, the story points out. Low-income students are eligible for waivers, often funded by taxpayers, reports the Times.

The College Board argues that even students who do poorly on the test are more likely to enroll in college compared to similar students who didn't try AP and "that students who received 2s had slightly higher grade-point averages in introductory college classes on the same subjects."

However, other research has shown "minimal to no impacts" on college outcomes, for low scorers, reports Goldstein.

At Boston's Roxbury Prep, a charter educating students from low-income black and Hispanic families, the curriculum is built around AP, she writes. As in most other states, Massachusetts covers most of the test fees for needy students.

“We keep all doors open,” said Chelsea McWilliams, Roxbury’s principal. “It’s not about lowering expectations. It’s about raising supports.”
“It’s a high bar and rigor is good,” said Brett Peiser, co-chief executive of Uncommon Schools, the charter school network for Roxbury Prep.

While 54 percent of Roxbury Prep students earned college credit in at least one subject in 2023, 80 percent of tests taken resulted in a 1 or 2.

Pass rates are higher for low-income students in programs that don't rely solely on test scores, Goldstein writes. Sixty-one percent of International Baccalaureate students from low-income families earned college credit compared to 39 percent of low-income AP students in 2014, according to a federal analysis.

Projects and presentations factor into IB scores, she notes. That's rare for AP, but some new courses now include projects or presentations.

Adding subjective criteria could raise pass rates -- but lower AP's reputation for rigor.

Dual enrollment programs also are expanding rapidly. High school students earn college credit for courses developed by local college faculty, but often taught by high school teachers at the high school. "College credit is generally based on class grades and performance, not a standardized test," Goldstein writes.

Is the course really taught at the college level? It's hard to say.

Expanding access to advanced coursework has been a priority for the equity-minded, writes Fordham's Michael Petrilli. He asks: "Are too few low-income kids and kids of color gaining access to AP and the like, or too many?"

Limiting AP enrollment to those with a good chance of passing the exam is likely to widen racial and class gaps in course taking, "the very disparities that so many in the Biden administration and elsewhere were wringing their hands about last week," he writes.

The Challenge Index created by Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews encouraged schools to add AP options, writes Petrilli. Mathews argues that students who take challenging classes, even if they "struggle and get disappointing grades, are more likely to graduate from college than those who don’t.”

Some high schools have added classes to prepare students for AP, creating a success pipeline. Others put unprepared students in classes with an AP label, but don't teach at the AP level or expect anyone to take the exam.

Like Petrilli, I think it's better to err on the side of asking too much of students rather than too little.

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